WASHINGTON -- Detailing the evidence against Vice President Dick Cheney's former top aide, Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald last week described a concerted effort by ''multiple people in the White House" to use classified information to ''discredit, punish, or seek revenge against" a critic of the war in Iraq.
Bluntly and repeatedly, Fitzgerald placed Cheney at the center of the campaign against former US ambassador to Iraq Joseph C. Wilson IV that has been criticized as part of a pattern of selective release of intelligence by the administration to support its policies.
Citing grand jury testimony from the vice president's former chief of staff, I. Lewis ''Scooter" Libby, Fitzgerald said Cheney was among at least three White House officials who waged the attack against Wilson.
Cheney, in a conversation with Libby in July 2003, referred to Wilson's CIA-sponsored trip to Niger the previous year, in which the envoy found no support for assertions that Iraq tried to buy uranium there. Cheney described it as ''a junket set up by Mr. Wilson's wife," CIA case officer Valerie Plame Wilson.
Libby is charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for denying under oath that he disclosed Plame Wilson's CIA employment to journalists.
There is no public evidence to suggest Libby made any such disclosure with Cheney's knowledge. But according to Libby's grand jury testimony, described for the first time in legal papers filed last week, Cheney ''specifically directed" Libby in late June or early July 2003 to pass information to reporters from two classified CIA documents: an October 2002 National Intelligence Estimate and a March 2002 summary of Wilson's visit to Niger.
One striking feature of that decision is that the evidence Cheney and Libby selected to share had been disproved months before.
United Nations inspectors had exposed the main evidence for the uranium charge as crude forgeries in March 2003, but the Bush administration and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain maintained they had additional, secret evidence they could not disclose. In June, a British parliamentary inquiry concluded otherwise, delivering a scathing critique of Blair's role in promoting the story.
With no ally left, the White House debated whether to abandon the uranium claim and became embroiled in bitter finger-pointing about whom to fault for the error. A legal brief filed for Libby last month said ''certain officials at the CIA, the White House, and the State Department each sought to avoid or assign blame for intelligence failures relating to Iraq's weapons of mass destruction."
It was at that moment that Libby, allegedly at Cheney's direction, sought out at least three reporters to bolster the discredited uranium allegation. Libby made careful selections of language from the 2002 estimate, quoting a passage that said Iraq was ''vigorously trying to procure uranium" in Africa.
The first of those conversations, according to the evidence made known thus far, came when Libby met with Bob Woodward of The
Libby's next known meeting with a reporter, according to Fitzgerald's legal filing, was with Judith Miller, then of The New York Times, on July 8, 2003. He spoke again to Miller, and to Time magazine's Matt Cooper, on July 12.
At Cheney's instruction, Libby testified, he told Miller that the uranium story was a ''key judgment" of the intelligence estimate, a term indicating there was consensus on a question of central importance. In fact, the alleged effort to buy uranium was not among the estimate's key judgments, but lay deeper inside the estimate. It said US intelligence did not know the status of Iraq's procurement efforts, ''cannot confirm" any success, and had ''inconclusive" evidence about Iraq's domestic uranium operations.
Iraq's alleged uranium shopping had been strongly disputed in the intelligence community from the start. In a closed Senate hearing in 2002, then-director of central intelligence George Tenet and his top weapons analyst, Robert Walpole, expressed strong doubts about the uranium story. The State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research called the claim ''highly dubious."
Fitzgerald wrote that Cheney and his aides saw Wilson as a threat to ''the credibility of the vice president (and the president) on a matter of signal importance: the rationale for the war in Iraq." They decided to respond by implying that Wilson got his CIA assignment by ''nepotism."
Fitzgerald said the grand jury has collected so much testimony, and so many documents, that ''it is hard to conceive of what evidence there could be that would disprove the existence of White House efforts to 'punish' Wilson."